Friday, January 13, 2012
Four on the Floor
Friday brought the opening performance in what the Los Angeles Philharmonic is calling “The Mahler Project.” What the “Project” part is exactly is unclear. What is clear is that over the next five weeks, music director Gustavo Dudamel will lead a complete cycle of the Mahler symphonies first here in Los Angeles and then in Venezuela relying on both the L.A. Philharmonic and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela. Purportedly the event is “extraordinary.” But considering that Mahler symphony cycles are fairly common in modern orchestras (e.g. San Francisco) and that a complete set of the symphonies was performed as recently as 2009 by the Staatskapelle Berlin in 12 days at Carnegie Hall in New York under Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez, “The Mahler Project” doesn’t seem unique in terms of time, content or scope. (New Yorkers also got a performance of Das Lied von der Erde that time around which we in L.A. oddly will not, considering the work’s significance in Mahler’s symphonic output.) But perhaps all this will be new to some local audiences and/or players, which I guess is enough to warrant use of the term. "The Mahler Project" will be extraordinary - the question is simply to whom.
On Friday, the series opened with the Fourth Symphony paired with Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer). And while it wasn’t necessarily a world-class performance, it was a undoubtedly a very good and quite enjoyable one. Mahler’s short and early song cycle came first, where Dudamel and the orchestra were joined by baritone Thomas Hampson. Dudamel wisely kept the orchestra mostly out of the way of Hampson’s performance with a light touch. Hampson is certainly a big star with a great voice, but to be honest I found him less than exciting in this overall. In the work’s most intense moments he came to life, showing a little of that fire that makes him so good in Verdi. But some of the higher stretches of Wayfarer's score sounded a bit out of reach for him. He was definitely more of a gleaming knife in the chest kind of guy than a romping over the green fields one.
All of this verdant Romance and heartbreak provided a nice segue to Mahler’s most familiar symphony that kicked off with its sleigh bells and bright melodies. Mahler is one of Dudamel’s favorite composers, but one he has struggled to present here in Los Angeles with any real coherence. This evening was certainly the best performance of any Mahler symphony that he has yet given in the city. The work bubbled with life and excitement around many corners and he seemed in touch with the almost pastoral quality of the piece. Dudamel can sell big moments, and he gave the players free reign to run with huge crescendos. The brass and winds sounded lovely and the strings continue to turn richer and more full-bodied under his leadership. The soprano soloist in the final movement was Miah Persson who delivered a very touching rendition of Mahler’s own text describing a child’s vision of Heaven. She soared above the orchestra with a bright and easy tone bringing the evening to a lovely conclusion.
However, this isn’t to say that the performance wasn’t without its share of problems that kept it decidedly earth-bound. Dudamel continues to have balance issues with the orchestra. The first two movements on Friday were full-bodied and brimming with so much activity and emphasis of competing details that the overall focus could get lost in the cacophony of sound. Things never turned harsh, but they were certainly overworked. Subtlety has still not entered Dudamel’s musical toolbox, but this opening Mahler symphony at least suggested he can keep things from unraveling in these large scale Romantic works. It’s a good, solid start that if he can manage to sustain over the next few weeks, just might make this cycle worth hearing from beginning to end whether it’s extraordinary or not.